This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 01 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
In this age of tolerance for personal viewpoints, we must be careful that we do not denigrate the importance of authorial intent. Authorial intent is simply the meaning that an author intends to communicate when composing a message.
If one arbitrarily chooses to believe whatever he wants about life, that is his choice. If a belief is extrapolated from a literary document that is written with a clear intent to communicate certain truths, however, then this belief must be scrutinized, even criticized, by using proper hermeneutics to understand the document. The chosen belief of the reader does not trump the intended meaning of the author.
This is especially true when one is basing one’s belief on an authoritative source such as a religious document. The source can remain authoritative only to the degree that its message is preserved and interpreted in the way the author intended it. If the author’s intent is not upheld, then authority no longer resides in the source, but rather in the interpreter. The source becomes nothing but a window to reveal the interpreter’s own viewpoint.
Upholding the intent of the author as authoritative is essential when two differing religions are examining the same text with the claim that that text is an authoritative source. It is imperative that both religions take care not to project their own beliefs onto the source, thus making their own beliefs authoritative; instead they must ask, What is the author intending to communicate in his message?
The Muslim View of “a Prophet Like Me.” An important text in the debate between Islam and Christianity concerns Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, where Moses states to Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you”(v. 15 NASB). Muslims claim that Muhammad is the fulfillment of this promise, whereas Christians contend that the Messiah, Jesus, is the fulfillment. It is important in making such claims that one adhere to a careful hermeneutic of the teaching of the Old Testament, the broadest context of this phrase, and chapter 18 of the book of Deuteronomy, the more specific context of this phrase.
Muslims base their claim that Muhammad is the fulfillment of this promise on the understanding that the ways in which Muhammad was like Moses transcended the ways other prophets may have been like Moses. Since Christians understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of this passage, Muslims compare Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad to demonstrate why Muhammad is superior to Jesus as the prophet like Moses1:
- Moses and Muhammad, but not Jesus, led normal lives in every way. They were born naturally, married, and died at an old age. Jesus was supernaturally conceived, lived as a bachelor, and died tragically at the age of thirty‐three. Nothing about His life was normal.
- Moses and Muhammad, but not Jesus, became the leaders of their people. They both experienced some rejection at first, but in the latter years of their lives, they led their people politically and religiously. Jesus, however, experienced rejection from the masses and even desertion by His closest followers, until He was crucified for blasphemy.
- The successors of Moses and Muhammad, but not of Jesus, conquered the Promised Land. Joshua came after Moses and conquered the land for the nation of Israel. Umar succeeded Muhammad and conquered the land for Muslim Arabs. Jesus, however, did not overthrow the Roman authority over Israel, and none of His immediate successors made any such attempt.
Such points provide Muslims with their rationale that Muhammad is the prophet Deuteronomy mentions who is “like” Moses. Is their argument compatible, however, with the point that Deuteronomy 18, the authoritative source, is establishing? The above comparisons are interesting, and they provide strong argumentation if—and only if—the context of Deuteronomy 18 warrants the three arguments. A closer look, however, at the authorial intent quickly undermines their validity.
Qualifications of a Prophet from the Specific Context. One needs to go no further than the immediate context of this phrase to find a simple response to the Muslim argument. There is absolutely no mention of the Muslim criteria in the authoritative source. Living normal lives, becoming leaders of their people, and having a subsequent leader conquer the Promised Land may be interesting similarities between Moses and Muhammad, but they have no contextual relevance to the use of the word “like” in Deuteronomy 18. Using these arbitrary criteria seems nearly as absurd as using first initials to support the Muslim interpretation, claiming prophetic fulfillment because the names of Moses and Muhammad both begin with the letter “M,” in contrast to the name of Jesus, which begins with a “J.”
Deuteronomy 18, especially verses 9–22, provides important foundational teaching on prophecy. The message and person of a prophet like Moses would need to conform to this basic standard. Of the many teaching points found in this passage, three are pertinent here:
- The prophet acted as a mediator between the Lord and His people (vv. 16–18). God spoke to the prophet, who then spoke to the people. God did not speak directly to the nation. The origin of this is in the story of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 20:18–21).
- The prophet was to be obeyed and feared (vv. 19, 22). This was because he brought a message from the Lord (cf. God’s serious response in Deuteronomy 17:11–13 to one who does not heed the Law).
- The prophet was to speak in the name of the Lord, not in the name of any god other than Yahweh (vv. 19–22; cf. Deut. 13:1–5; 12ff), and the prophet was not to speak in the name of the Lord presumptuously (i.e., he was not to speak anything that God did not expressly speak to him). The most important implication of this is that all revelation must be consistent with God’s revelation to this point, as contained in the Mosaic Covenant.
Muslims need to utilize these criteria, which are set forth clearly in the authoritative source. It is improper hermeneutically to create arbitrary criteria when the authoritative source is clear.
Qualifications of a Prophet from the Broader Context. A prophet was to conform also to at least five broader criteria as set forth by other passages in the Old Testament as well as in Deuteronomy 18. Consider the following:
- He was to be an Israelite (Deut. 18:18).
- He was to be directly called by Yahweh (Deut. 18:18). He did not assume the position on the basis of heredity, as was the case with the priestly and royal offices.
- He was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Num. 11:17; 1 Sam. 19:20; 2 Chron. 20:14; Ezek. 11:5).
- He was to give evidence of being a good shepherd over Yahweh’s people as described in Ezekiel 34. The evil shepherds are described in verses 1–10 and the good in verses 11–16.
- He was to vindicate his message by signs (Exod. 3:12; 4:8; Deut. 13:2). These signs meant that he truly was sent by Yahweh and his words are the words of Yahweh. They could take the form of miracles (1 Kings 13:1–5); predicting the exact time of an event (1 Sam. 12:16–19; Isa. 7:14–25); predicting the occurrence of an event (1 Sam. 10:3–7, 9–11; 1 Kings 13:3–5; 2 Kings 19:29); an occurrence in the prophet’s own life (Isa. 20:3; Ezek. 24:15–24); or object lessons (Ezek. 33:30–33).
This provides the foundational teaching for establishing the meaning of a prophet “like” Moses. All of these criteria would need to be met.
Qualifications of a Prophet “Like” Moses Based on Moses’ Own Uniqueness. Moses was no ordinary prophet. His life evidenced additional criteria that set him apart, emphasizing the uniqueness of how a prophet “like” Moses was to be understood. These qualities are what give us the strongest criteria for the meaning of a prophet “like” Moses. Consider the following implications from his life:
- He was the mediator of a covenant. All other prophets simply called the people back to this covenant, issuing sermons for the people to obey the covenant that the Lord established with Israel, specifically with Moses, at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:1–25 and many other passages). Jesus’ death initiated and ratified the covenant in which all other covenants find fulfillment, the new covenant. He is like Moses, but He is superior.
- He knew the Lord face to face. Deuteronomy 34 uses similar terminology as Deuteronomy 18 (“like Moses”) in describing his uniqueness: “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10–11 NIV). Exodus 33:11 adds that the Lord “used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (NASB). Moses was not just a spokesperson for God; he was God’s friend, who spoke with him “face to face.” Jesus also had a unique relationship with the Father (cf. the Transfiguration), coming from the Father, and He even claimed to be God, the second person of the Godhead, which He substantiated throughout His life. He is like Moses, but He is superior.
- He had “mighty power.” Deuteronomy 34:12 adds, “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (NIV), suggesting an additional peculiar characteristic of Moses. Moses’ “mighty power” was evidenced when he served as God’s instrument in bringing the terrible plagues upon Egypt. This goes beyond using more “normal” signs to validate the message, although Moses demonstrated those as well (e.g., turning his staff into a snake and back again, making his hand leprous and healthy again; see, e.g., Exod. 4). Jesus also demonstrated “mighty power” in healings, miracles, casting out demons, and so forth. He is like Moses, but He is superior.
Moses was the leader in the greatest event of Old Testament history, the redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This was the hallmark that Israel was to celebrate yearly in the Passover. The Old Testament references the Exodus throughout, more than any other event as cause for celebration of God’s majesty. This redemption from Egypt was only a foreshadowing of the ultimate redemption that Jesus accomplished by redeeming us from the bondage of sin through his death on the cross. He is like Moses, but He is superior.
The criteria just outlined, which establish what would need to be met for someone to be considered a prophet like Moses and thus to fulfill Deuteronomy 18, are based on the foundational teaching and the uniqueness of Moses as described in Deuteronomy and the rest of the Old Testament (the authoritative source). The criteria that Muslims set forth to support Muhammad as the fulfillment of the promise of Deuteronomy 18 is misinformed and arbitrary; there is nothing in the context of the authoritative source that would support the rationale for choosing that criteria.
— David Talley
- This argument is taken from John Gilchrist, Facing the Muslim Challenge: A Handbook of Christian‐Muslim Apologetics (Cape Town, Republic of South Africa: Life Challenge Africa, 1999), 118.